Riding with the king: John Hiatt and the Combo

John Hiatt and the Combo, 25 August 2010

Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle

John Hiatt, from Culturespill

Eighty degrees Farenheit and a gentle breeze blowing across the North Meadow at the Woodland Park Zoo at show time. There’s an opening act, a young woman named Ashleigh Flynn playing tunes from her latest album called American Dream. She plays guitar and harmonica, and her folk-rock sound competes amiably with the sun and the families and friends finding their spots on the meadow, unpacking their picnics and illegal bottles of wine and beer (no alcohol except in the beer garden, all the signs say). And she’s gracious enough to mention several times how much she loves Hiatt. Her best tune might be one called Knock on Wood, which is a tribute to the agnosticism caused by being raised the daughter of an atheist and a Southern Baptist.

The break after her half-hour opening set is just long enough for most of the folks who find it necessary to visit the facilities, while Hiatt’s team rechecks and resets the sound. And then we see Kenny Blevins, the drummer, take his place and we start to cheer, and the rest of them follow quickly, Hiatt stepping right up to the center mic and giving us a nice greeting and kicking the band into Drive South, a slower, easier version than the recorded one, perfect for a summer evening. He doesn’t do his trademark yodel in the bridge of that one, though, maybe still warming up the old vocal cords, and they don’t take much of a break before the opening growling whine from Doug Lancio for Perfectly Good Guitar, dedicated to all the music lovers present, and we make our gratitude known.

Next up is Real Fine Love, also played slower and somehow deeper than the original 1990 recording, Lancio and Hiatt playing together make it a Real Fine Song, and the line I thought I had a line on something maybe no one else could say, but they couldn’t find it in their hearts just to get out of my way makes me cry a little like it always does, the always sweetly painful wanting to say what we need to say.  And then they pick up a tune from Hiatt’s 2000 album, Crossing Muddy Waters, called Lift Up Every Stone.  It’s tough to describe, except to say it’s a rock-folk-blues-spiritual, heavy on the spiritual, but not gospel, it’s not about the world where god makes things right, it’s about the world where you have to lift up every stone, now, sister, one is the truth and the other’s a lie… til they tear down the wall, to make you cry. On the album Hiatt’s backed up by some high harmony vocals, tonight he sings solo, and I miss that harmony just a little, though the song is beautiful no matter what.

Finally it’s time for something from the new album, the title cut, The Open Road; Hiatt has the band swing into that heavy twangy rocking opening riff, the one that sounds like you wish your car’s engine sounded, and he immediately forgets the words to the opening verse and starts singing nonsense trying to keep up with them for a few bars, til he’s laughing too hard and has to start himself over, though the combo just keeps driving on, and I yell out “I know it by heart, let me come up there,” or I do in my mind, anyway, but he doesn’t hear, so I stay in the crowd.

Hiatt pauses after this tune to ask if the folks in the far back of the meadow can hear, because the band has a decibel limit, being at the zoo and all, “too loud and the snow leopards get riled up, and we don’t want that, they’re unpredictable when they’re riled up.” The truth is the sound is a little too soft, you can still hear the couple on your left talking and the two little old ladies behind you catching up on their latest aches and pains; the outdoor venue has its limitations, and although people could meet for a picnic in any of the hundred Seattle-area parks and catch up on their lives for free, it seems a few have decided paying twenty-five dollars to do the same thing in the zoo meadow while Hiatt and the Combo play is better; but mostly you can tune them out, and the trade off is that off on the left side of the crowd, where there’s open grass for a kind of aisle, and down in front of the sign-language interpreters who are making the physical representation of Hiatt’s lyrics almost as beautiful as the music, down there a group of young girls forms, most of them seem to be about eight or nine years old, and they dance together in the way girls that age will do before they learn to be conscious of how they look to others, just bouncing and giggling and waving and bopping and more bouncing and lots more giggling, and that’s part of the joy of it, seeing them absorb this music into their bones.

Next up, The Tiki Bar is Open, thank god, and on this one the Combo gets to shine, a long section in the middle starts with a bass guitar solo from Patrick O’Hearn, introduced later by Hiatt as being from “Oh-re-gone, living in the woods, practically feral.” The way he plays his bass solo you can believe the feral part, ending it on an impossibly high note that lingers in the increasing shadows; then Kenny Blevins on drums takes over and jiggers the beat around making it tough to find and his band mates laugh, and Lancio tries to do a little something around it on lead guitar, and does, the two of them have so much fun we are all laughing as Hiatt brings them back together for the end of the tune punctuated by his trademark vocal howl and a few high leg kicks before they move into the opening slightly menacing downbeats of Paper Thin, a song with one of the best opening lines ever written: I was gonna get up off of that bar stool, just as soon as I could figure it out. We’ve all been there, maybe not the eight-year-old girls, but all the grownups, we’ve been there.

Master of Disaster is dedicated to Jim Dickinson, Memphis record producer, musician, and father of Luther and Cody Dickinson; Jim passed away last summer after telling his son Luther what he wanted on his gravestone: “I’m not gone, I’m just dead;” then Freight Train from the new album, bluesed up (or should that be down?) as far as it can go; and Cry Love, written fifteen years ago, “when we all had more hair, more brain cells, some stuff didn’t hang down as far as it does now, and some that still pointed up like it was supposed to.” Your Dad Did is for “that old man in the Barca-Lounger in the sky,” and then comes Feels Like Rain.

This song usually introduces the idea that he’s going to end the show soon; about half way through, right as he moves into the bridge – and right before we ain’t never gonna make that bridge tonight, babe, across the Ponchartrain – that’s the moment when the air that’s held onto all the warmth from the hot afternoon finally takes a right turn into cool, the breeze still soft as the lyrics; it occurs to me that if you’re ever going to use this song to seduce someone you love, you’d better be damn good because otherwise the song’ll be better than you are.

Slow Turning is next and gets most people up and dancing, you can learn to live with love or without it, but there ain’t no cure, another painfully sweet truth; then we are treated to Tennessee Plates and everyone’s up and dancing, ever since that (song) we been living in between. End of show except, of course, the crowd won’t let it be, and Hiatt and Blevins and Lancio and O’Hearn know it, we all know it, but we scream “more, more, more” til we’re hoarse anyway (no one’s really worried about the snow leopards getting riled up now, it seems). And back they come.

Have a Little Faith in Me has the couples in the audience slow dancing; I’ve been loving you for such a long time now expecting nothing in return, just to have a little faith in me. And as he did two years ago, the last time he played Seattle, Hiatt ends with Riding with the King. It’s the same song, same singer, same band; same sense of elation, of valediction; but it’s all new at the same time. Someone, John Mellencamp maybe, recently proclaimed the death of rock and roll but, introducing this song, Hiatt says he don’t think it’s dead, and we roar our agreement.

Lancio roars on lead guitar too, and that section at the end, after all the lyrics are sung and the guys are just playing their guts out, making it perfectly clear to the crowd and the snow leopards and the old ladies and anyone within earshot that rock and roll not only isn’t dead, it’s a life force, the guitars are its blood and the drums are its heartbeat, I can’t describe the sound except to say if you’ve ever watched a boxer with one of those punching bags, not the big body-sized ones, the little teardrop-shaped ones hanging from a spring, how the boxer will get to punching as fast as he or she can and the bag spins, that punching and spinning is the sound, and when the guitars and drums pause and Hiatt takes on that last long, long, long high note with his voice, his imperfect perfect voice, does his little joke of pretending to check his watch while he holds it, even though you know it’s coming and you’ve heard it before, it’s still a miracle, I guess like life is a miracle, and yeah, rock and roll is still alive and it’s riding with the king.

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